Back from the Brink

Two large rounded lumps ambled onto the edge of my yard. I squinted to make out what they were.

“Turkeys!” my daughter squealed, as three, and then five more joined the first two. Like miniature dinosaurs with all the time in the world, they meandered, pecking here and there, and scratched at the ground. I grabbed some sunflower seeds, my daughter,  and my camera, and walked into their midst. Clearly used to being the big kids on the block, these birds showed no concern over having a human in their crowd.

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Perhaps it was this trust that nearly led to their extinction by the early twentieth century. Turkeys are native to the U.S. and were Benjamin Franklin’s choice to be our national bird. They were so plentiful in the days of colonial history that, like the carrier pigeon, people thought they could never run out. Their carefree and slow movement, coupled with their meatiness made them a favorite food source.  

Throughout the 19th century turkeys were hunted relentlessly year-round. No seasonal restrictions or limits existed on how many could be taken. Together with the loss of their woodland habitat as forests were cleared for human habitation, turkeys hovered on the brink of extinction by the early 20th century. From a pre-colonial population estimated at ten million, by 1910-1920, there were only about 200,000 remaining.

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This tom is strutting his stuff to impress the ladies. He blows up his iridescent feathers, fans his orange barred tail, and lifts his head high to show off the bright blues and reds on his head and neck. I’m impressed!

So what saved the turkey from following the route of the carrier pigeon to the annals of extinction?

Serendipity and human effort. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl forced many farmers to abandon their farms and move to urban areas in search of work. As they retreated, the lands they left reverted to native habitat. Yet, there were so few turkeys left that they could not repopulate these growing woodlands. At least 16 states had completely lost their native turkey population. (Source: “Americans Once Almost Ate Wild Turkeys Into Extinction,” The Dodo, November 25, 2014) Efforts to catch and release turkeys, or to incubate eggs in the 1940s were a failure. What finally turned things around for the wild turkeys was the invention of the net cannon, which made capturing them much easier.

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Net cannons like this enable conservationists to capture a large number of birds at once.

Large numbers of turkeys could be easily captured with these nets and transported as a herd to states with low or no turkey populations. Their recovery is one of American conservation’s greatest success stories. The organization behind this success is the National Wild Turkey Federation, a nonprofit representing hunters, and dedicated to protecting habitat for that purpose. A half century after their near-extinction, there are now over 7 million wild turkeys roaming America. It is remarkable how much can be done to save endangered species when there is a will to do it.

Unlike vultures, turkeys don’t eat carrion. The absence of feathers on their head is related to courting. When turkeys are trying to attract a mate, the exposed skin flushes with blood and its bright blues and reds advertise their interest.
Unlike vultures, turkeys don’t eat carrion. The absence of feathers on their head is related to courting. When turkeys are trying to attract a mate, the exposed skin flushes with blood and its bright blues and reds advertise their interest.
When disturbed, turkeys are more likely to run than to fly. They can run up to 25 m.p.h. Maybe that’s why Mamaroneck calls its race the Turkey Trot! At night turkeys fly up to roost in trees, and if you are lucky you can spot an entire crop of turkeys in one tree.
When disturbed, turkeys are more likely to run than to fly. They can run up to 25 m.p.h. Maybe that’s why Mamaroneck calls its race the Turkey Trot! At night turkeys fly up to roost in trees, and if you are lucky you can spot an entire crop of turkeys in one tree.

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